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Christmas Reality Check: Holy Innocents, Martyrs

December 28th, 2013
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I see Frosty, and Santa, and Dasher and Dancer, but I do not think I’ve ever seen lawn decorations for this Christmastime observance in the Church Year. The Commemoration of the Holy Innocents, the children killed by Herod in his quest to rid himself of all who would threaten his rule and reign as king of Palestine. But don’t we all have a little Herod in each of us? We too want to do away with all of Christ that threatens our “comfort zone.” We do well today not only to remember the innocents who were killed but the sins which caused our Savior to suffer and die for us. The Innocent One for the guilty, for you and me.

We pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, in your humility you have stooped to share our human life with the most defenseless of your children: may we who have received these gifts of your passion rejoice in celebrating the witness of the Holy Innocents to the purity of your sacrifice made once for all upon the cross; for you are alive and reign, now and for ever.

We may wonder why, in this “season of joy and happiness” we have in the Church Year the commemoration of the murder of St. Stephen, and then, a couple days later, the murder of young children. What a gloomy note to strike during this happy time! But one thing the Christian Faith is not, it is not unrealistic. It does not “make believe” that we can simply wish away evil, or ignore it. No, we deal with it, head-on, in all its brutal tragedy. These little children were slaughtered, while the Son of God, went free. Such it always is with the ways of Satan. He wants nothing more than to destroy and mar what God has declared good. And so, even at a very young age, the agents of Satan were coming after our dear Lord, but His time had not yet come, and God provided a way of escape. His Son escaped, in high divine irony, back to the land where God’s people had been enslaved so long before, and out of Egypt, God called his Son (Hosea 11:1). He called His son forth to come back to the land where He was born, in order to continue His divine mission of the salvation of the world. The ancient hymn by Prudentius sings well what this commemoration of the Holy Innocents means for us:

Sweet flow’rets of the martyr’s band
Plucked by the tyrant’s ruthless hand
Upon the threshold of the morn,
Like rosebuds by a tempest torn;

First victims for the incarnate Lord,
A tender flock to feel the sword;
Beside the altar’s ruddy ray,
With palm and crown you seem to play.

Ah, what availed King Herod’s wrath?
He could not stop the Savior’s path.
Alone, while others murdered lay,
In safety Christ is borne away.

O Lord, the virgin-born, we sing
Eternal praise to You, our King,
Whom with the Father we adore
And Holy Spirit evermore.

Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348-c. 413)
LSB 969

And we pray:

Almighty God, the martyred innocents of Bethlehem showed forth Your praise not by speaking but by dying. Put to death in us all that is in conflict with Your will that our lives may bear witness to the faith we profess with our lips; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.

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  1. Dave Schumacher
    December 28th, 2009 at 10:18 | #1

    Please don’t take this as invectiveness, as none is intended; I’ve actually wondered about this for quite some time.
    Why do we refer to these babies as martyrs? I know that they were very likely circumcised, but do we go too far in assuming that they had the true faith?

    McCain response: Why would we assume they did not? Circumcised on the eighth day, according to the Law. Members of the People of God. What would they have to do to “prove” their faith? God’s Word of promise extended to them as well.

  2. Dave Schumacher
    December 29th, 2009 at 14:32 | #2

    @Dave Schumacher
    Yes, I see what you are saying with regard to assuming their faith.
    I really did not mean to insinuate that we must have some “proof” of faith to assume that they had faith. Although this was not my conscious intent, I understand now that that is what my question really boiled down to.
    I’m still not comfortable with the “martyr” terminology though. How do we understand these babies as having died as a witness to the faith? It not that they were asked to renounce their faith or die. I have trouble understanding the idea that these babies died in place of Christ.
    Can it be said that Herod’s evil slaughter was God’s will; that this had to happen for God’s plan to be carried out?
    Please comment.
    Thanks so much,

  3. Paul
    December 30th, 2009 at 20:04 | #3

    “Today we commemorate [...].” Who’s “we”?

  4. December 28th, 2010 at 13:43 | #4

    Paul, Thank you for the reminder that the Church East, West and all around the town commemorate the slaughter of innocent children. Those hebrew babies bore witness that even as an infant the Christ was an enemy of those who are self-righteous, proud, and powerful in this world. The killing of these children was in the best interest of the Government (as Herod saw it). The Soldiers were just carrying out orders and all the other officials of Jerusalem, including the Sanhedrin and chief priests were silent in the face of power and self-interest. Prayers for the innocents who are slaughtered in our day, and those who are complicit and silent in our land. Lord have mercy.

  5. December 29th, 2010 at 07:30 | #5

    @Dave Schumacher
    The Holy Innocents were martyrs because by their tragic deaths they fulfilled the Scripture (Matthew 2: 16-18) so that the Lord’s Son, Immanuel, might Himself come to full flower for us and our salvation. Even the rocks and stones could sing of the Redeemer (Luke 19: 40). Those children were unwillling witnesses, never the less, witnesses to the Faith because Scripture was fulfilled. We could say that the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas were also witnesses to the Faith in so far as that blood payment also fulfilled Scripture (Matthew 27: 9) witnessing this is indeed the long foretold Christ. Also, Pilate, when he posted in 3 languages, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (John 19: 19-21), was in a sense a witness, the first evangelist (one of my profs at Concordia Junior College/Milwaukee made that point!). All of the above were witnesses in deed but not will. And as someone has commented on the three days after Christmas:
    The Evangelist John, the only disciple to live to old age was a martyr: in will but not in deed.
    Stephen was a Martyr in both will and deed.
    And again, the Innocents in deed but not will.

  6. December 30th, 2010 at 11:03 | #6

    “The Evangelist John, the only disciple to live to old age was a martyr: in will but not in deed.”
    Is that why a feast day was given him?

    Thank you for this post! I never thought about the irony about Jesus returning to Egypt. I cited this post at my blog, linked above; if that’s not all right with you, please let me know and I’ll remove it.

  7. Eric Lintz
    December 28th, 2011 at 13:29 | #7

    Amen Pastor McCain. They are included!

  8. Eric Lintz
    December 28th, 2011 at 13:40 | #8

    I always found infants slaughtered anywhere in the Bible abhorent, until I came to terms with the Sin in our world. Nobody is free of it. The infants killed in the Flood of Noah’s day(No infants in the ark). The infants slaughtered entering the promised land, the infants slaughtered in Egypt by Pharoah, and the firstborn during the first Passover. Not to mention the millions slaughtered today all for “CHOICE.” According to our Reformed brothers those all probably elected to damnation, that really grinds my bones! I’d say God took care of them all. That is the faith I am confessing.

  9. Mark Preus
    December 28th, 2011 at 19:09 | #9

    Excellent post! Thank you, Paul! Prudentius put it so beautifully well! He is my favorite Latin poet. His original is called the “Hymnus Epiphaniae” or “Quicumque Christum quaeritis” – “Whichever of You Seek Christ”

    He goes into a long comparison between Christ and Moses after the verses we have in LSB, the first of which is

    Sic stulta Pharaonis mali
    edicta quondam fugerat
    Christi figuram praeferens
    Moyses, receptor civium.

    Thus once from Pharaoh’s crazed decree
    Moses escaped and then set free
    His people, thus prefiguring
    The flight of Jesus, Israel’s king.

    Or more literally,

    Thus Moses, restorer of his citizens,
    prefiguring Christ,
    Once fled the foolish edicts
    of wicked Pharaoh

    God knows there is even joy in remembering the horrible deaths of his martyrs, because precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints – so let it also be precious to us, who are His children.

  10. Pastor Michael Penikis
    December 28th, 2012 at 23:12 | #10

    Julius Schiller (1580-1627), a lawyer from Augsburg, Germany, published a celestial atlas, Coelum Stellatum Christianum, in which he replaced all the pagan constellations with biblical and Christian figures. His commemoration of the Holy Innocents would be visible year-round in the Northern Hemisphere. He put the constellation of the Holy Innocents in place of Draco, the Dragon. (Nice touch, I think, honoring these young martyrs instead of a symbol of the power behind Herod’s all-too-typical action.) Schiller also gave these babes a good heavenly guardian, the Archangel Michael (replacing Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, a.k.a. “Little Dipper”).

    These three days of the Christmas Season serve as a great reminder that our Lord Christ was born to suffer and to die in our stead. He has told us that because the world first hated Him, it will also hate us. He told us to expect that we would suffer and be put to death for His sake and the Gospel’s.

    Why focus on death in a “season of joy and happiness”? In this old fallen world, people still die, even during this joyous season, and even Christians still die at this season. Our joy comes not from denying this reality, but that through the reality of death — His own — Christ has conquered death for us.

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